Who will ultimately pay for pandemic-related costs to power utilities is being mulled over now by state regulators, companies and activists in Washington.
The Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission on Dec. 10 allowed utility companies to set aside certain funds and costs in a separate account and label them as COVID-related expenses, said Emilie Brown, spokesperson for the Commission.
This process is known as deferred accounting. In the future, utility companies, like Puget Sound Energy and the four other companies the state regulates, could come back to the Commission and ask to make that money back by raising rates for customers.
Brown said rates are not increasing now, and that any increases would have to be approved by the Commission.
But power companies could decide to make up the difference in other ways, like dipping into shareholder funds, executive payments and bonuses.
That’s what Katrina Peterson, climate justice program manager for Puget Sound Sage, is hoping will happen. Her organization, along with several other community and activist groups, spoke at the Dec. 10 Utilities and Transportation Commission meeting, urging them to not grant utility companies deferred accounting.
“Every single member of the public or consumer advocate was calling for the commissioners to either narrow or deny,” Peterson said.
The Washington State Office of the Attorney General agreed, and in a document sent to the Commission, called the power companies’ request too broad and generous during a global pandemic.
“The Commission should limit any authorized deferred accounting to only increased bad debts and the costs of customer bill and arrearage assistance,” the Attorney General’s document states.
The Commission should further encourage utility companies to look at any deferrals through the lens of shared sacrifice, according to the AG’s document. It also called on utility companies to show how they are sharing the financial burdens of the pandemic with their customers.
At the Dec. 10 Commission meeting, Commissioner Ann Rendahl said they could not force power companies to “order the utilities to use corporate or shareholder funds for charitable purposes to provide assistance for customers.”
“However, I do encourage all of our utilities to support their customers through this unprecedented and dark time,” Rendahl said.
In October, Gov. Jay Inslee extended moratoriums on housing evictions and public utility shutoffs through Dec. 31. It also forbid energy, water and land-line telephone companies from charging late fees and re-connection fees.
Puget Sound Energy did not provide specific financial information on how the pandemic was impacting their company. However, a spokesperson did issue an email statement: “These unusual circumstances have brought on increased expenses that otherwise would not occur. These range from enhanced cleaning at PSE offices and workspaces to increased (personal protective equipment) for our employees.”
The PSE statement also said the company has distributed more than $8.5 million in bill payment assistance to customers since April.